Fallen soldier a hero to his family

Army Staff Sgt. Wesley Williams one of more than 2,000 service members killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

After a shopping trip last December, Krista Williams returned home to find two uniformed Army officers sitting with her mother in the living room.

She knew immediately what to expect. Her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Wesley Williams, who had been deployed to Afghanistan the month before, had prepared her for this moment.

She remembered the detailed list her husband had given her. It laid out exactly what would transpire if something were to happen to him.

“It was almost a comfort … because I was like, oh, OK. Wesley said this was going to happen,” she said.

Wesley Ross Williams was killed by an improvised explosive device last December in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, an attack that also injured two other soldiers.

He was 25.

Williams is one of the more than 2,000 U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. Each has their own story that gets played out in homes across America. For the families of the war dead, carrying on means enduring the heartache while also finding solace in a legacy that what will remain intact forever.

“Of course you’ll have bad days,” Krista said. “But I focus on all the good memories, not the times we won’t have.”

On Dec. 12, 2012, the 26-year-old Williams flew to Dover Air Base to retrieve her husband’s body and go through his personal effects.

It was the couple’s fourth wedding anniversary.

A desire to be the best

Wesley Williams, the second of four children, was born to be a soldier, his parents say.

Part of that is lineage. Altogether, grandparents on both sides of the family served in every branch of the U.S. military but the Coast Guard. His paternal grandfather served in three wars and, like Wesley, is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

“It just seemed like there was never anything else he wanted to do,” said his father, Lars Williams, 47, who himself spent three years in the Army.

Another part was his personality. Family members described Wesley as tenacious and passionate, with an occasional chip on his shoulder and a desire to be the best at everything he did.

As a scrawny, undersized kid in pee-wee football, his coach said he was too small, and only let him on the field for kickoff coverage. After laying out one of the other kids during practice, the coach upgraded him to the offensive line.

“The worst thing you could (tell him) was ‘you can’t do it,’” Lars Williams said. “Sure enough, he’d do it. It just became a challenge after that.”

When he reached high school, Wesley enrolled in Junior ROTC. That’s where he met Krista; the two were both four-year members. He graduated from Tecumseh High School in 2005 and immediately enlisted in the Army, completing infantry training and Airborne School later that year.

After being stationed in Germany, he served his first tour of duty in Iraq from August 2007 until October 2008. He and Krista got married two months after he returned. The following year, he was stationed in Washington state and served a second tour in Iraq from September 2009 to August 2010.

He was an “action guy,” and as a non-commissioned officer, he preferred to be in the middle of firefights when necessary so he could be closer to the soldiers he directed, family members said.

“He took his job very seriously,” Krista Williams said.

That included preparing his family for the possibility that he might not come home.

“He was very mature and very focused, and I think he loved us enough to not want us to be in turmoil when his time came,” said Linda Williams, his mother.

She cherished the time she spent with him, playing Scrabble or just talking.

“I knew he was going to have a short life,” she said, crediting her intuition as a mother. “I always focused on him so I could enjoy those special moments.”

Part of his preparation included sharing with Krista his long-term hopes and plans for their family. He bought a German Shepherd to help protect them while he was gone, and talked with his wife about moving to a house that had a big yard for their children.

“He said, whether I live or die, you guys will be taken care of,” Krista said.

Part of his legacy will be his daughters, including what Krista calls his “last present” to the family.

Faith was born on Aug. 31, 2011, at the Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis in Washington. Except for off-site training, he was able to spend every day with her until left for Afghanistan last November.

Krista said her husband was a patient father, having learned from helping raise his 11-year-old sister. “I actually remember not being sure how things were going to go because we were both kind of young,” she said, “but he was so calm, and knew exactly what to do.”

Krista found out she was pregnant while Wesley was at Fort Lewis in the final days before he left for Afghanistan. She told him over Skype, holding up the pregnancy test to the web cam so he could see it.

“He grinned from ear to ear,” Krista said.

By the next day, he’d picked out two names, depending on the child’s gender.

Valerie Marie is scheduled to be delivered this July.

Inspiring strength

Krista Williams lives with her parents in the New Carlisle house in which she grew up. It sits on a spacious wooded lot off a country road with a swimming pool in the backyard. Wesley helped her move there from the couple’s home in Washington the week before he deployed to Afghanistan.

She spends much of her time raising Faith, now an energetic 21-month-old.

She doesn’t play the stereotypical part of the grieving widow. In interviews, she was calm, composed and plainspoken.

Lars Williams said his daughter-in-law’s strength is inspiring. “A lot of the time I look to her to lead the way, and she’s done that, above and beyond,” he said. “It’s a real comfort to see that she hasn’t fallen apart. And I know it’s got to be amazingly tough on her, but she’s just handled it so well.”

That’s partially by design, said Linda Williams.

“Wesley made it very clear he didn’t want us falling apart and being a hot mess. He made it very clear he wanted us to be happy,” she said.

The family carries grief, of course. When asked how she felt when she learned about her son’s death, Linda Williams’s eyes instantly teared up.

“Heartbroken,” she said. With a heavy pause, she pursed her lips. “Part of my soul was missing.”

Today — Memorial Day — has always held special meaning for Linda and Lars Williams. They hold an annual Memorial Day cookout, with dozens of family, neighbors and friends who come each year.

“We’re a military family, so we always understood what the holiday was about,” Lars said: “remembering those that had died in the service of their country.”

This year it will be brought a little closer to home, he admitted. “It’ll be a little more somber than in years past, I believe.”

They increased their guest list for this year’s cookout, extending invitations to, among others, those who braved an ice storm last December for Wesley’s visitation at a New Carlisle funeral home.

“We’re grateful they did that for us,” she said. “I know people view this as what we gave to the country, but we want to make an effort to thank them for the effort they’ve made to comfort us.

“I don’t really consider anybody a stranger around here anymore. It gives you a different perspective on community.”

‘Best kind of daddy’

Last August, around Faith’s first birthday, Wesley bought an electronic Hallmark book called “Under the Same Moon,” and recorded himself reading it.

Krista plays the recording for Faith every night, and Faith kisses her father’s picture before she goes to sleep. Krista will do the same with Valerie when she is born.

As time goes on, she’ll have to explain to her girls what happened to their father. But for now, it feels to her like Wesley is still with them.

“I feel like I’m raising them with him,” Krista said.

Krista held Faith, helping her eat a peeled orange.

“Your daddy was a hero, huh?” she said. “That’s the best kind of daddy.”

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